Voices: Rishi Sunak’s asylum plan risks making the UK a global pariah

Rishi Sunak’s plan to “stop the boats” of asylum seekers crossing the Channel is doomed to fail. That’s not merely due to the very real possibility that the courts will block it – a scenario openly acknowledged by ministers in their unusual statement that their Illegal Migration Bill might not be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The “policy”, better described as pre-election positioning, will probably end up eating itself. I’m told yesterday’s controversial announcement has gone down badly with the French government, reversing some of the important progress Sunak made in improving relations through last week’s deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol.

Sunak deserves credit for his painstaking work on that.

But his equally deep dive into the small print of the small boats issue threatens to undermine one of the big gains he made by rebuilding bridges with the EU and the wider world – including the US – by dropping Boris Johnson’s and Liz Truss’ threat to tear up an international agreement on the protocol.

Now Sunak is flirting with their approach: as ministers put it politely, they are “pushing the boundaries” of international law. The EU and US will not be impressed, not least because the ECHR underpins the Good Friday Agreement, which the protocol deal was designed to bolster.

The reaction abroad matters because really “stopping the boats” rather than just talking about it will require an agreement with the EU to return asylum seekers to the continent. Instead, the government’s plan will put a cloud over Sunak’s meeting with Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Friday.

There will likely be a commitment to increase funding and cooperation between police and border staff on the French coast. At the first Anglo-French summit for five years (a delay caused by the mistrust towards Johnson and his confrontational approach), the two leaders will put on a symbolic show of unity and stress they want deep and broad links on a whole range of issues, such as defence.

They will probably avoid a public row over the small boats but the absence of significant progress on returns will hang in the air. One French source told me: “If there are doubts about the legal position on the ECHR, he [Sunak] is never going to get a returns agreement. We are not going to be complicit in anything that is not compatible with international law.”

The concern in EU countries will be fuelled by the UN Refugee Agency’s statement that the bill would be in “clear breach” of the 1951 Refugee Convention and amount to a “ban” on claims, no matter how genuine or compelling.

The UK would also have a better chance of being able to send asylum seekers back to the EU if it opened safe routes for refugees from more countries, but ministers are wrongly delaying that until after the small boats crisis is resolved.

A returns agreement with the EU is vital. Even if the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda clears the courts, the African country would probably take only a few thousand; for reference, 45,000 crossed the Channel last year (a figure that could almost double this year). The only others likely to be sent abroad would be those from Albania, as Sunak has won an agreement with it.

It is revealing that both Sunak and Suella Braverman, the home secretary, refuse to say what success of their “stop the boats” pledge would look like. Logically the answer would be zero boats, but they know there’s zero chance of that. They raise hopes that the tough new line will be a deterrent, but the failure to send anyone to Rwanda yet is not a good advert.

Sunak will hope the many voters with genuine concerns about the small boats will give him some credit for at least trying to “do something”. My guess is that would happen only if the numbers crossing the Channel dropped sharply.

Of course, the Tories would blame any failure on the courts and the Labour opposition. The legal and political battle would suit them nicely as a general election dividing line; they are convinced Labour is on the wrong side.

Failure would also increase the pressure on Sunak to include a plan to leave the ECHR in the Tory manifesto. Braverman is prepared to do this, while for now, Sunak insists it is not necessary. He has decided not to make a decision on this until nearer the election.

A manifesto commitment might look like a cunning plan.

It would make “Europe”, if not “Brexit”, an election issue – even though the ECHR is not an EU agreement – because Labour would oppose it. A last-minute inclusion might bounce the many Tory MPs with deep reservations into keeping their heads down. A manifesto pledge would make it harder for the House of Lords to block ECHR withdrawal if the Tories retained power.

However, the incendiary move would further alienate the UK’s natural allies around the world, putting it in the same club as Russia and Belarus – the only European countries outside the convention. Hardly the much better place on the world stage that Sunak’s breakthrough on Northern Ireland took us to.